The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

V. Dialect Writers

§ 6. Foster

If the novel with a purpose is not a suitable theatre for the display of negro character, neither is the comic minstrel show. The songs written by Stephen Collins Foster (1826–64) retain still their deserved popularity but they do not portray the negro from within. Old Black Joe, Old Uncle Ned, My Old Kentucky Home, Old Folks at Home, or Way Down upon the Suwanee River are the best-known songs ever written by an American. Words, music, and sentiment are welded into perfect unity and harmony. “Old Folks at Home,” says Louis C. Elson, “is the chief American folk-song, and Stephen Collins Foster is as truly the folk-song genius of America as Weber or Silcher have been of Germany.” On the contrary, Foster can hardly be called a writer of folk-songs at all. His songs are pure sentimentality. The old-time negro, however, was religious, musical, humorous, loyal, emotional, improvident, diplomatic, philosophical, almost everything in fact except sentimental. These songs are not folk-songs, therefore, because the dialect is purely artificial, because neither words nor music originated with the negroes, and because the sentiment they express is alien to the race by whom these songs are supposed to be sung. They are sung, in fact, so far as the writer’s observation goes, only by white people, never by negroes, except in a minstrel show.